Ancient skeleton found in Mexico cave threatened by train

MEXICO CITY (AP) — A prehistoric human skeleton has been found in a cave system that flooded at the end of the last ice age 8,000 years ago, according to a speleological archaeologist on Mexico’s Caribbean coast.

Archaeologist Octavio del Río said he and fellow diver Peter Broger saw the shattered skull and skeleton partially covered by sediment in a cave near where the Mexican government plans to build a high-speed tourist train through the jungle.

Given the distance from the cave entrance, the skeleton couldn’t have gotten there without modern diving equipment, so it must be more than 8,000 years old, Del Rio said, referring to the time when sea level rise flooded the caves.

“There it is. We don’t know if the body was deposited there or if that’s where this person died,” Del Rio said. He said the skeleton was located about 26 feet (8 meters) underwater, about a third of a mile) within the cave system.

Some of the oldest human remains in North America have been discovered in sinkhole caves known as “cenotes” on the country’s Caribbean coast, and experts say some of those caves are threatened by the government’s Mayan Train tourism project. Mexican.

Del Rio, who has worked with the National Institute of Anthropology and History on projects in the past, said he had notified the institute of the discovery. The institute did not immediately respond to questions about whether he intended to explore the site.

But Del Rio said Tuesday that the institute’s archaeologist Carmen Rojas told him the site was registered and would be investigated by the Holocene Archeology Project of the Quintana Roo state branch of the institute.

He stressed that the cave, whose location he withheld for fear the site could be looted or disturbed, was close to where the government has cleared a swath of jungle for train tracks, and could collapse, become contaminated or close. for the building project and subsequent urbanization.

“There is a lot more study that needs to be done to correctly interpret” the find, Del Rio said, noting that “dating, some kind of photographic studies and some collection” would be needed to determine exactly how old the skeleton is. .

Del Río has been exploring the region for three decades, and in 2002 she participated in the discovery and cataloging of the remains known as La Mujer de Naharon, who died around the same time, or perhaps before, as Naia: the nearly complete skeleton of a young woman who died about 13,000 years ago. It was discovered in a nearby cave system in 2007.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is rushing to finish his Mayan Train project in the remaining two years of his term despite objections from environmentalists, cave divers and archaeologists. They say his haste will allow him little time to study the ancient remains.

Campaigners say the heavy high-speed rail project will fragment coastal jungle and often bypass fragile limestone caves which, because they are flooded, tortuous and often impossibly narrow, can take decades. explore them.

Caves along part of the shoreline have already been damaged by construction on top of them, with cement piles used to support the weight from above.

The 950-mile (1,500-kilometer) Mayan Train line is intended to circle around the Yucatan Peninsula, connecting beach resorts and archaeological sites.

The most controversial stretch cuts a strip of more than 68 miles (110 kilometers) through the jungle between the tourist centers of Cancún and Tulum.

Del Río said the route through the jungle should be abandoned and the train should be built on the already affected coastal highway between Cancún and Tulum, as originally planned.

López Obrador abandoned the highway route after hotel owners raised objections and traffic disruptions and cost became a concern.

“What we want is for them to change their route in this place, due to the archaeological finds that have been made there and their importance,” Del Río said. “They should take the train out of there and put it where they said they were going to build before, on the highway… an area that is already affected, devastated.”

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